Sunday, October 07, 2007

God Does Not Exist

I am a believer in God, but not a very good one.

How I actually act in the world seems to have more to do with habit, the usual mix of good desires and bad desires - all affected on a daily basis by genetics, psychology and the pressure of living. Plus, I am not very good at prayer.

Once upon a time I used to be able to set aside time and really try to "practice the presence of God." That does not really happen any more.

Nevertheless, I will still affirm as true that the world has both a creator and a meaning, that God was incarnate in the historical individual Jesus of Nazareth, and that God is manifest in the world through the emanation of grace, seen above all in the sacrifice of the altar - that "God was man in Palestine/And lives today in bread and wine" (Betjamen).

But, so as to be fair in argument, I want to try to come up with the best arguments against faith in God.

[I am not interested in the discussion about "religion." Religion is the area of my academic study. Religion is a sociological universal. It has good effects and bad effects. It will continue to exist whatever the current arguments conclude.]

1. Science has produced better and better descriptions of the universe. Not everything is explained, but unless one is willing to make the untenable statement that "science has reached it's limits", there is no reason to suppose that the explanatory power of science might not increase *without limit.* As an outside observer (three years of high-school calculus almost killed me), it seems clear that we are in a time of massive scientific advances in understanding without parallel in human history. Science is THE great intellectual adventure of our time. Nothing should be done to hinder it in any way. Science (especially physics/neurobiology) may make God unnecessary.

2. It is morally repugnant to make God the author of all good in the world (beauty, great virtue, mother love) and yet to excuse God for all the real suffering in the world. This is a typical Christian approach.

3. If God, (as I believe) is best know through revelation, why are the so-called Holy books such awful texts? The Koran *appears* plagiarized; the Old Testament is almost completely fallacious as history; the New Testament presents no real problem in the Synoptic Gospels, but the Gospel of John is (almost) from another religion entirely. Buddhist and Hindu scriptures (admittedly not "revelation") are, to an honest westerner, simply tripe.

4. Joseph Smith. Mormonism is (apart from the anti-Gay bit) a really NICE religion. It encourages group solidarity; it does NOT condemn all non-Mormons to hell (just a less nice heaven); Mormon architecture is on the edge of the camp and inspiration, but it is pretty great over all. Despite all this, I think Joseph Smith was a fraud from upstate New York. Why don't I think this about all founders of religions?

OK, that's my best, most honest, set of reasons to deny faith in both God, and specifically Jesus.

Despite all this, I affirm my real and deep faith that Jesus of Nazareth is God.

Now, I invite atheists to come up with the best reasons they can think of to oppose their position.


Nick said...

Denials of God's existence are as epistemologically overconfident as faith in the same. So maybe we atheists indulge in some wishful thinking too.

Travis said...

I am not an athiests, but I will give it a shot since I do not consider myself a christian either.

1. The fact that Christianity spead so quickly throughout the main part of an established empire (with an already established religion) in such short time hints to some divine power behind the massage.

2. The fact that the English word "God" in the OT is actually the Hebrew word "Elohim", which is a plural word for the Canaanite god "El", so by havig a plural word for God in the OT is no doubt proof of the Trinity in the OT. (this is an argument I heard from Jack Vanimpe and I think it is completely bogus)

3. So many people who have turned their lives over to Jesus have had their lives turn for the better.

4. Pieces of toast that have the face of Jesus on it taste a lot better than toast that does not have the face of Jesus on it.

5. If Jesus never existed, then we would not be saying "Jesus Christ!" when something pisses us off. (Which brings up a good question. Do athiets say "God Damnit!" or do they say "Nothing Damnit!" or "Guy who does not exist damnit!"

(OK, I admit that I am not being completely serious, but that is the best I could do)

Trey said...

As an almost non-believer, I'd simply say following causation all the way to the beginning doesn't demand some rational, omnipotent being pushing the button making big bangs or directing daily fate. That's man's desire for a reason when perhaps there's just as much reason for why person X died as why an electron likes so much to spin around a neutron... it just is. There's no "one" spinning that neutron and there's no grim reaper collecting the corpse and no St. Peter accounting for the soul. Electrons spin, people die, and universes come into and out of being. There's no more a God responsible for the good stuff as there is for the bad.

I'm not denying that there aren't many, many aspects of life and the universe that are well beyond our intellectual powers or that a spiritual world doesn't exist... I just think it's too easy to label the "why/how/what" God, give it eyes, a nose, and a superbrain (connected to Wikipedia, if you're Tom Friedman's god) and build the tallest house in the block for it. Whatever you think "God" - the ultimate causation - is, you're probably wrong in the same way an ant would think of God as being the six-legged man-queen having an golden little hill on the tallest mountain where hikers dare not tread.

Maybe "it" just "is" and doesn't ever ask for sacrifices (much less talk to people - or become a person), answer prayers, or feel the need to explain what in the hell is going on down here on Earth.

Anonymous said...

If these are your best reasons, Paul, then I can see why you have little trouble believing in God.

I don't read too much contemporary philosophy of religion, but one book that I can definitely recommend is Brian Davies' The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. Davies is a Dominican, and thus trained as a Thomist, but also well trained in 20th century analytic philosophy. The reason I recommend his book above all others that I know anything about is that he is the only one I know of who takes divine transcendence seriously. He makes God more mysterious than folks like Richard Swinburne, but probably more plausible, too. The best part is, he levels good arguments against the most common theistic treatments of the problem of evil and the most common theistic conceptions of God, yet he ultimately defends theism.

Just to tantalize you: there's a reason why his book isn't called "The Existence of God and the Problem of Evil." For Davies, God doesn't exist, despite being the source of all reality. If it sounds neat, that's because it is.

Paul Halsall said...

I have met Brian Davis a number of times (I was once an member of a student Dominican group, and was at Blackfriars in Oxford on a number of occasions while he was there; he was also at Fordham while I was there). But in this case nothing Anonymous cites seems especially new. Neoplatonists (outside Christianity, and only in some formulations) and Palamists (within Christianity) have been quite willing to deny existence as an attribute of God for many centuries.

Theologians are always coming up with arguments against the religious views of the commons. One common approach is to define a word against all common use, in this case the word "exist." (Statements by Buddhist teachers that deny the reality of a "soul" use a similar trick.)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you've met Davies, but you should really read his book, too.

You're right that Davies' view isn't new. It's the more traditional view, in fact. The trouble is, it isn't the view that most people take, even philosophers of religion. Davies' view avoids the most common problems of theism and is thus, I'd say, far more plausible.

To deride theologians for "defining words against all common use" is just anti-intellectual nonsense that imagines that 'the commons' must understand God perfectly well. Davies' technical use of the word 'exist' isn't a sophistic game, and he has no trouble with people saying "God exists" where they don't mean the same thing that he does by 'existence.' He does believe, however -- and in this he seems more orthodox than the vast majority of contemporary philosophers of religion and 'the commons' -- that seriously imagining that God 'exists' in the sense that he uses that word is not only wrong, but idolatrous because it collapses the essential distinction between God and the world. You can find the same sort of view in Robert Sokolowski's The God of Faith and Reason, in all of Herbert McCabe's works, and in much of Nicholas Lash's writing. They seem right to me. As I see it, the failure to take divine transcendence seriously has lead us to our current situation, in which many atheistic arguments are actually right on target, because they are aimed at a conception of God as essentially a super-powerful personal agent in the world.

Of course, if you want to insist that 'the commons' must be right because they're the commons, then you can do so. Why you would continue to be Catholic with such a view is beyond my comprehension.